London to the rescue after Roman tragedy

The fourth edition of the modern Olympic Games was remarkable in that it was organised in the space of less than two years by Great Britain, after London took on the mantle from the original host city, Rome.

The Italian capital had been the IOC’s preferred venue and was awarded the Games in 1904. However, growing doubts about the Italians’ preparations came to a head when tragedy struck on 7 April 1906. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, overlooking the southern city of Naples, killed over 100 people and caused widespread damage, requiring funds to be allocated for relief and reconstruction. This money, the government decided, would have to come from the budget allocated for the IV Olympiad – so Italy announced its intention to pull out.

Who could take up the baton? The IOC asked the British Olympic Association to step in and, at a meeting on 19 November chaired by Lord Desborough – its president and a skilled ex-fencer – a resolution was passed that London would hold the 1908 Games.“As this country has been the cradle of so many forms of athletic sport,” wrote Desborough in an announcement that was published in national media eight days later, “it is absolutely essential that the Olympic Games, if they are held in England, should be carried out in a manner worthy of a great athletic nation.” He followed that statement with what might seem an unusual request – that “the Committee would welcome any suggestions which may result from the kindness and experience of your readers”.

As it happened, large amounts of external aid were not necessary. Plenty of infrastructure was already in place and, even if a stadium was not, Desborough and his colleagues had already begun negotiations with the organisers of the Franco-British Exhibition, a public fair that itself was due to be held in 1908. They proposed that the Exhibition accommodated an athletics ground near its site in west London. An agreement was concluded on 14 January 1907 that, according to the Official Report of the Games, “provided that the Exhibition Committee should construct at their own cost all the racing tracks and buildings necessary for carrying out the Olympic Games, and should provide all necessary equipment, attendants, advertisements etc., and should advance to the British Olympic Association the sum of £2,000 for current working expenses”. The Exhibition would take a three-to-one share of the Games’ proceeds, but this still went down as a remarkable piece of negotiation and opportunism by the BOA.

It led to the completion of an Olympic stadium within a mere 10 months of its inception – and its first stanchion was only put in place on 31 July 1907. White City Stadium – known then as The Great Stadium – was a vast arena with a seated capacity of 66,288. It could accommodate double the number on its terraces. The Games, which had not gone off with as much fanfare as hoped in St Louis, were to be housed in a facility that went on to last 77 years and proved a miracle of engineering.

A new medal was designed, too. The prize medal (the gold, silver and bronze awards given to those finishing in those positions) displayed the figure of England’s patron saint, St George, on one side with an image of an athlete crowned between two emblematic female figures on the other. The latter was intended for replication in medals at all future Olympic Games.


Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.
Sign up here Sign up here